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Interior Secretary: 1 Percent Of Wildfires Take 30 Percent Of Funds

A U.S. Forest Service photo shows firefighters near the perimeter of the Elk Complex fire near Pine, Idaho, last summer. Lawmakers are calling for a change in the way America pays for wildfire disasters.

Western lawmakers and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell urge changes to the way America pays to fight and recover from wildfires, starting with preserving money that's meant for fire prevention. They met with fire officials Monday who predicted a busy fire season for much of the West.

NPR's Nathan Rott reports for our Newscast unit:

"Secretary Jewell says her department and the U.S. Forest Service spend more than $3 billion annually fighting fires. A third of that is spent on megafires, the biggest 1 percent of any season's blazes.

"Jewell says the federal government is hoping to change that by paying for those massive fires with a emergency fund, the way they do other natural disasters.

"'If tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes are natural disasters we have to use for emergency money, let's do the same for the top one percent of wildland fires,' she said.

"President Obama's budget proposal has the framework of that change written into it. Lawmakers from both parties have pledged their support."

Jewell met with Idaho's Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, along with Republicans Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho and Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon today at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

"Something is fundamentally wrong when we fight forest fires by raiding fire prevention funds," Merkley said, according to Aaron Kunz of Idaho Public Television, who was at today's session.

"If we more effectively manage our lands, fewer fires will become disasters," Risch said, according to the AP.

The news agency says fire officials issued their expectations for the coming wildfire season:

"Experts at the National Interagency Fire Center predicted a busy wildfire season in Southern California, New Mexico and Arizona this year, expanding into Northern California and southern Oregon later in the year. All the moisture in the eastern United States this winter should mitigate the fire season there, the center predicted."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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